The roads were shimmering in the January heat haze as I headed across the flat lands and Gold Country towards the distant grey outline of the Grampians.
As they grew ever closer I passed through the old mining town of Ararat, famous for its time as a Chinese gold mining boom town, but later renowned as the hometown of a certain Shane Kelly, who is heavily proclaimed on the town sign boards, they’re obviously very proud of this giant of the track.
The town could also be considered the real gateway to the Grampians, from here on in the roads start to roll some more as you lap at the heels of the forested North-western Victoria mountains. I’d never been to the region, but has seen some amazing images of the area, which had well and truly marked it as a must visit destination, and lucky I did when I had the chance, about a fortnight later the forest fires devastated the region.
It’s not often that logic plays a part in my planning, but on this occasion I’d opted to go for the central hub of Halls Gap as my base for a couple of days of exploring the surrounding mountains, this is pretty well in the heart of the Grampians, and the tourist focal point for just about anything in these parts, and it proved the right choice.
The afternoon sun was cooling off some by the time I’d pitched up in town, and I was itching to get a blast of evening mountain air into my overheated lungs, so I hit the road without too much hesitation. The road south from town seemed like a logical option, as it didn’t look too hilly on the map, which I figured would ease me into the trip.
Climbing gently out of town the road meandered its way through the tall mountain trees, the road was dappled and chilled. There was a narrow right turn, which I guessed must lead to a dead end, but it looked so inviting I just had to check it out.
It didn’t take long to work out that it was not the road I thought it was, which was a plus point since it made for a handy, but hilly loop ride. As things rolled on the gradient became steeper and the road twisted around like a venomous snake in the trees, biting at my legs and sapping the air from my lungs, much-needed after a couple of days stuck in an oven of a car.
Despite being prime holiday time the roads were pretty well deserted which is a feature of riding the area – as soon as you turn away from the main roads you have the place more or less to yourself, and can suffer in solitude.
Ultimately the road climbed up to meet the main road towards Horsham, another treat of a ride, and a perfect Alpine style descent through the trees and back to Halls Gap, a great introduction to riding in the region.
Over the next couple of days, I managed to navigate most of the local roads, as there aren’t masses of them around. I’d imagined these mountains to be sheer steep-sided beasts, requiring crampons and ropes to scale, like their Scottish namesakes. But no, sure enough, there was plenty of climbing to take in, but it was all manageable, which meant that I was able to hurl my unfit body around on some reasonably distanced rides without killing myself.
The local scenery is great too, with lots of greenly forested hills, deep blue lakes, waterfalls, dramatic rock faces and impressive ravines. Rolling out and around the Halls Gap area is also very picturesque, with gently rolling agricultural lands spanning out for miles, peppered with loads of great roads for riding, and plenty of dirt tracks if you fancy getting rough.
My break into the Grampians was drawing to a close, and all loaded up I headed southwards towards the coast and a ride along the Great Ocean Road.
Unfortunately, I was fully laden with gear, which was a real shame. This would have made for a perfect and very contrasting weeklong circular tour from Melbourne. I’ll know better next time.
OTHER LOCAL RIDING
Halls Gap makes for the perfect base if you only have a couple of days in the area, as you can ride out in any direction, literally, and find superb riding.
Straight out of town you can tackle the first ride I did by heading towards Dunkeld and then taking the first right, climb past the lake and then turn right and descend back to town, an ideal warm up ride of around 1.5 hours in duration. If you ride further south you can climb over to Dunkeld, double back towards Ararat, cut back before getting there to Moyston and head back, a rolling mega ride.
Another great ride is to climb over towards Horsham, and then turn right to Stawell and back, not so long but pleasant. For flatter rides just keep to the Ararat to Stawell area.
If you have a week to spare and fancy making an epic tour of things then you can either hitch a lift out of Melbourne to Ballarat or Ararat, or even ride there on the back roads. From here ride to Halls Gap, do the circular ride towards Horsham, then head south to Dunkeld, on to Port Fairy and then back along the Great Ocean Road.
GETTING THERE AND WHEN TO GO
Halls Gap is in the centre of the 167,000-acre Grampian National Park, which is 260km from Melbourne. If you are travelling by car it’s a comfortable 3.5-hour drive from the city. If you plan on using public transport then you can catch a train from Melbourne to Ballarat, from where you will need to link in by bus to Halls Gap or Ararat.
The best time for riding in the Grampians is April/May and October/November. At this time the wild flowers and vegetation are in full bloom, and the weather is warm and mostly dry. During the main summer months, it can be really hot, and accommodation can be hard to find. In the mid-winter months, it can be wet, chilly, and there is sometimes snow on high ground.
SLEEPING AND EATING
The town of Halls Gap is quite a sleepy little place and well spread out. There are loads of accommodation options, ranging from a nice camp site to a really good youth hostel to lodges and hotels. For a full listing check out www.visithallsgap.com.au.
Surprisingly there isn’t a whole load of places to eat in town. There are a couple of decent shops for food and drink, a couple of cafes, a bakery, a reasonable pasta joint and the very good but not cheap Kookaburra, where you will need to book ahead at busy times.
There is a small pub, about a mile out of town, but it’s very basic and well off the beaten track, so much so that a highly honed beer hound such as myself could not find it.
Bring your own. There is not a bike shop in town, so come well prepared. The closest shop to town is Lardner Brothers in Ararat.